Pianist Lise de la Salle – personally nonchalant – unstoppable at the piano

“I don’t watch myself, I am not aware of how I look, the music is here…who cares how you look!”  ( Photo Credit: Nicholas Brodard)

After winning the European Young Concert Artists Auditions in Paris in 2003 and then the following year in New York, the young French-born pianist quickly became a renowned performer on New York concert stages. Watching the de la Salle perform during the latest Young Concert Artist’s Gala at Alice Tully Hall, one could not help but marvel in the YCA alumna’s lively performance style, incorporating freely-moving, grandiose choreography at the piano.

De la Salle likes to change her programs frequently. One of the reasons for this is her broad taste in repertoire. “I force myself to jump around from Bach to Ravel, to Chopin to Gershwin to Rachmaninov. It’s wild, I love so many amazing composers, and I don’t want to refrain from doing just that.”

But another reason for constant change of style is to challenge her emotional and technical response: “I like the challenge. You learn a lot when you switch repertoire often, since you never play two pieces alike. It makes me think about what it is I am doing more, and how I do it. Having to adapt one’s technique constantly, my interpretation, my philosophy…it’s a great exercise and keeps you alert and fresh,” she explains.

“Lately I had that special connection with Beethoven concertos, which I played a lot in the last months. But when I worked on Rachmaninov, that same feeling of excitement set in instantaneously, developing my closeness to the composer.

“It depends what I work on, but usually I can get totally immersed with the work of the composer. If I really had to choose that one ‘Island’ composer, for me it would be Mozart. I find everything in Mozart’s music, all the emotions, joy, sadness, drama, deep feelings but also laughter and jokes; there is a lot of humor in Mozart,” she explains and adds: “I like that the music is simple in sound and on the page; so obvious, but at the same time so clever and so human. This is music that talks to my heart every time, and I get it immediately.”

Despite the brevity of our personal meeting, I sensed her strong energy level and positive outlook. De la Salle comes off as a “what you see is what you get” kind of person, with a very refreshing and straightforward attitude. At 29 years old, de la Salle did not necessarily share the more common anxiety-ridden path of many pianists’ long and difficult career-related decisions, which many of her young colleagues have faced after finishing their training. Home schooled and in and out of the Paris conservatory from age 14 (to accommodate her active concertizing life), this is a pianist that does not look back: “If I have regrets? Well yes and no. Yes, in some ways it’s perhaps easier to have a more regular youth with more relaxed teenage years, but I’d rather have my life now,” she says, certain she would not have the life she lives currently if she had not spent those younger years focusing rigorously on the opportunities that presented themselves to her.  “And I have plenty of fun times now, behaving like a teenager while touring and traveling to summer festivals, doing chamber music together with the many friends I have made in the music circle. Life is always about a balance, and for me, building my career early on had a very positive outcome,” she says.

De la Salle was only 16 years old when she came to international attention in 2005 with a Bach/Liszt recording that Gramophone magazine selected as “Recording of the Month.” De la Salle, who records for the Naïve label, was again recognized in 2008 for her recording of the first concertos of Liszt, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich – a remarkable feat for someone only 20 years old.

As anyone these days, de la Salle is keenly aware that the experiences of women are very different from those of men in her field. “Luckily, though, I myself have never had even half a bad experience,” she says. “I consider myself very lucky to have only [had] encounters where everyone is respectful towards women, and while it’s still dominantly a man’s world, I don’t feel less appreciated. I have always had great rapport with the many men I’ve worked with, and all of my collaborations have been lots of fun, so far,” she says.

Her personal rapport is especially strong with her duo partner, Christian-Pierre La Marca, a young cellist with whom she recently released her latest CD, Paris- Moscow. He is the only musician with whom LaSalle partners on a regular basis; the rest of the time she likes to stay open to different propositions.

This particular connection between de la Salle and La Marca was not made by managers, but reached personally. “We wrote to each other, saying: ‘I like what you do a lot…’ and it continued from there. We met for a drink and clicked instantly, talking about everything that came to mind. Only later did we say: ‘hey, let’s read together through some music.’ Our musical communication continued to feel as if we were still sharing drinks on a night out. Playing together, there was this same, instant connection. Since then, we built our duo, without any pressure, and it grew more serious from there. We did a recording, and then the round becomes complete, and you go on tour together. Last October they released the album From Moscow to Paris on the Sony label, gathering pieces by Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Rimsky Korsakov to portray the two cities during the turn of the 19th century,” she explains. They will tour the US end of this year, promoting the CD and their duo collaboration.

During her many months touring, de la Salle’s partners vary often; she enjoys working with different collaborators and keeping herself open to opportunities. “I always look forward to new projects, finding new repertoire and new collaborations,” she remarks. “I constantly tour the world, what changes is the repertoire I tour with, and the people I collaborate with,” she explains.

“One of the most exciting experiences is to collaborate with an orchestra,” she says. “I have built many relationships with conductors I admire. My most long-term collaboration is with Fabio Luisi. We worked on so much repertoire together and went on tour in Asia, Europe, and the US, and recorded among other works the complete cycle of Rachmaninov concertos live; I adore working with him,” she mentions.

Friendships are of the utmost importance to de la Salle, “I love to socialize, but I also appreciate having my private space, which I don’t get so much of. I am a firm believer in serious friendships; you don’t get to have a lot of real, true friends. I am lucky meeting a lot of interesting, new people all the time, but I don’t call all of them friends necessarily. My close group of friends is at home in Paris, and also in New York where I used to live for a few years; I love the city and it still feels like a second home to me,” she says. De la Salle visits New York often, about every six weeks, but it is Paris where her roots are, and she feels deeply connected to her family and friends across the pond.

De la Salle says playing in Paris fills her with joy and excitement: “Excited with joy makes my playing better, even in troubled times. Strong emotions give the music heightened intensity. Sometimes when you live it you don’t realize that, but looking back, you can see its different. If you are truly happy, it gives you a certain freedom in how you express the music. If you feel on top of the world, your audience feels that as well, and anything is possible.”